An employee of the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office contends in a lawsuit that Sheriff Jewell Williams repeatedly sexually harassed her, openly discussing his genitalia and hers, and smeared her name around the office as a “home wrecker” and “whore” after she rebuffed his advances and began dating another employee.
The lawsuit, which names the city, Williams, and Deputy Sheriff and Staff Inspector Paris Washington as defendants, alleges that from 2013 through spring 2015, Williams and Washington tormented administrative assistant Vanessa Bines with sexual come-ons and lewd comments, and later with retaliatory hostility after she filed complaints with city and federal employment discrimination offices.
After reviewing her claims, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission gave her a right-to-sue letter in July 2017, according to the lawsuit.
“This is what happens to women in 2017. You would think that we would have learned our lesson,” her attorney, Gregg L. Zeff, said. He likened the case to claims against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, whom dozens of actresses and other women have accused of sexual harassment.
“Women who don’t have power, and bosses and bosses of bosses who do have power, still in 2017 seem to think that they can get away with treating people this way,” Zeff said.
In a statement released Monday evening, the office said Williams, 60, “categorically, and in the strongest possible fashion, denies” the allegations outlined in the complaint and has striven to “create a workplace where everyone is respected and treated equitably.” The statement did not address specifics of the claims but said “the sheriff looks forward to the day when he and this office are fully and completely vindicated from the allegations, and ask the public to allow the court to do its job before passing judgment.”
Bines, 40, who is seeking injunctive relief and damages, declined to be interviewed.
In her complaint, Bines contends the harassment was so intense it affected her health. “From the end of 2016 through January 2017 plaintiff took medical leave so that she could have some time to manage her depression and insomnia,” the suit states.
Hired in 2012 as a temporary administrative assistant, Bines became a full-time non-civil service employee in 2013, according to the lawsuit. A single mother, she is dating a deputy sheriff who serves as Williams’ driver, Zeff said.
Before Bines began that relationship in April 2015, Williams showed a romantic interest in her, often hanging around her desk and inviting her to expensive dinners after work, the suit said.
“Subsequently, Sheriff Williams gained knowledge of plaintiff being intimate with his driver and immediately shared this information with multiple people within the Sheriff’s Department,” according to the lawsuit. Eventually, Williams allegedly began referring to her as a “home wrecker” and “whore” to department employees due to her relationship with the married driver.
“It’s like All My Children or Peyton Place,” Zeff said.
Williams, a former state representative and Temple University police officer, has been sheriff since January 2012, winning reelection in 2015. He oversees a workforce of 372 employees, most of whom are deputy sheriffs who provide security in six city court buildings, transport prisoners to court appearances, serve warrants, and execute foreclosures and tax sales.
The 11-count civil complaint alleges that Williams and Washington violated city, state and federal laws by subjecting Bines to sexual harassment, a sexually hostile work environment, and retaliation for reporting them.
The lawsuit states that Williams made sexually harassing comments, including in the spring of 2014, “while plaintiff was at the water cooler, Sheriff Williams said to plaintiff, ‘You know what they say about guys with big feet,’ referencing the size of his genitalia,'” the suit said.
Washington, the suit states, also engaged in making sexually harassing comments to Bines, including wondering aloud what she had between her legs, and making an oral-sex joke at her expense to a coworker.
At Williams’ urging after Bines began dating his driver, the suit states, Washington began monitoring Bines more closely than other employees. “He would watch her on camera and scrutinize her time sheet,” the suit states. In February, the lawsuit states, a Philadelphia Police Department captain who is a friend of Washington’s contacted Bines’ landlord in an attempt to have her evicted from her home and terminated from the Sheriff’s Department.
Bines is also alleging that her application to become a city civil service employee was denied as a result of retaliation for her reports to the equal employment offices and the city’s Ethics Department and controller.